A child who is experiencing test and achievement anxiety may at times be flooded with anxiety which interferes with his or her problem-solving skills. Correction of his work is often viewed not as assistance in her education but as a direct and personal attack upon him. In all cases of achievement and test anxiety, there is a fear of failure and intense expectation that their work will be judged inadequate. It is the emotional arousal and tension characteristic of this problem that interferes with the learning process. Youngsters who characteristically respond this way have a keen awareness of expected external standards of academic achievement. There is evidence that a child’s anxiety about achievement is highly related to the teacher’s approach to that child and her classmates. The child who is anxious usually receives little solace from knowing that others also might be uncomfortable. Often, anxiety can be decreased when the pressure to produce for an authority is decreased. Achievement is also fostered for many anxious children when they are afforded the opportunity to talk with an understanding adult about their fears, apprehensions, and opinions. Strategies which may be useful include:
Private Talks Between Teacher and Student
With many children, anxiety can be reduced by the teacher’s reassuring smile, touch, or arm around the shoulder. Anxious youngsters can feel supported in knowing that the teacher realizes how they feel, is willing to be close to them but maintains confidence in them: “Everything new we try in the classroom you won’t get every time. Sometimes you will worry about that and sometimes you won’t. Just keep working along with me and I will help you get it. No one is going to laugh at anyone else or criticize.” The teacher may explore with the youngster what particular circumstances in the classroom precipitate her anxiety as well as the youngster’s view of her anxiety and her relationship to schoolwork. The causes and effects surrounding a youngster’s achievement anxiety should be discussed with him affording him insights into his own behavior. These, in turn, afford him some feeling of control over his worries.
Providing a Reasonable Pressure-Free Environment
Teachers should be aware that a student’s anxious feelings indicate that he feels unable to perform perfectly. Therefore, the teacher should create an atmosphere in which the pressure to be perfect is greatly reduced. Competition to be “first” or “right” should be replaced with leadership indicating “let’s see if we can find out together.” The youngster should initially be protected from the usual symbols of competitive pressure, such as comparison with more successful peers. Pressure is also decreased when the teacher marks papers by highlighting what is correct more than what is incorrect. Allowance should be made for the student to make comments as well. Highly anxious students often achieve better when they are encouraged to make comments about a test or test items. This opportunity to comment also serves to release tension and to help the student to feel that he has an accepting, unpressuring teacher who is more interested in him and his thinking than in his test score. Correction and evaluation of student work may be made in the context of communication between teacher and student rather than as a teacher passing judgment upon a student.
Class participation can be conducted so that the competitive raising of hands is avoided. The anxious youngster can be helped by letting him know a little beforehand that he will be called on and for what reason. When a youngster feels that he must know the correct answer, know it fast, and then worry whether his knowledge or lack of it will cause him embarrassment, his anxiety level is substantially increased. A good sense of humor is a great asset in working with the anxious youngster. Telling a good joke or being able to laugh is always a source of tension release and helps a youngster forget himself for the moment.
Teaching techniques that foster a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence are useful to employ with any student. They are, however, particularly necessary with the anxious student since his anxiety relates intimately to his expectation of failure. Whenever possible it is important that the teacher point out the youngster’s successes: “What you have done here in interesting. I like the words you used and how you did it.” When a student has actually failed, he needs encouragement not empty praise; unwarranted praise only makes the youngster feel worse. It is crucial that the teacher recognize the difference between praise and encouragement. Praise is usually given to a student when a task or deed is well done or when the task is completed. Encouragement is needed when the student fails. Encouraging the child during the task or for trying is as important as giving the child recognition at the completion of the task. The student may have the mistaken idea that unless he is praised, he has no value and, therefore, he is a failure. Praise puts the emphasis on the student. Encouragement emphasizes the task.
Encouraging Performance with Tolerable Anxiety
Reality dictates that these students must learn to tolerate some anxiety. It is easier to assist the anxious youngster to perform well with low tension when the situation is structured to avoid the concept of “right” and “wrong.” The stage can be set by raising questions to which the teacher acknowledges that even he does not know the answer. The student can be asked how he thinks “we might find out what we want to know” with the intent to demonstrate that knowing the right answer is not as important as being willing to ask and seek to find out. The teacher must provide for the student a model of someone who tolerates “not knowing” by being curious and open in his own approach to problems and quest for answers. It is also possible to handle evaluation of performance and tests so as to reduce their anxiety-provoking elements. Fact tests may be used less often. Tests can be presented as games with no time limits or reading required. The anxious student is also more apt to be successful when test items are arranged in an order of increasing difficulty proceeding from what the student already knows to what the teacher wants to know about his learning. Anxieties decrease and achievement increases when the students are told the purpose of the test is to find out whether the teaching has been good or whether the questions are too hard or too easy. However, when they are told that the purpose of the test is to report to parents or others about how well they are doing, their anxieties increase and their learning is decreased.
Since anxiety derives in large part from anticipation of inability to cope with classroom demands, all techniques are useful which enhance the youngster’s feeling that he can control and/or predict these demands. If the anxious youngster must perform, he may be asked to perform only for a small group of peers he knows well. There are other skills the youngster can be taught which will enhance the feeling that he can cope especially when confronted with tests. For instance, he may be advised that he should read through all the questions on a test before answering any. Then, first answer those he knows the answer to, etc., through those he is unsure of. He can be instructed not to go back over questions he has already answered in order to decrease the possibility that he will become uncertain about even those which he initially thought were correct. Anxious students usually perform successfully using individualized self-instructional and programmed learning materials and this may be a particularly useful strategy to use in areas of skill weakness which contribute to anxiety about achievement.